CHIBA – The latest version of the blockbuster video game “Grand Theft Auto” may have stoked a worldwide buying frenzy, but the ultraviolent offering is likely to be a minnow in Japan’s vast gaming market.
Shoot-em-up video games from abroad often struggle to gain traction here, where fantasy-style games reign supreme and sell in the millions — even though many in the West have never heard of them. These include the hugely popular “Monster Hunter” franchise, which has sold 23 million copies and counting since its debut a decade ago.
“Most of them were sold in Japan even though we made an English version,” said a spokeswoman for game creator Capcom Co.
Problems in translating the language and cultural differences are among the reasons cited for the struggles of foreign game operators in Japan, a rift that was apparent as gamers flocked to the Tokyo Game Show last week. More than 600 games titles were on offer at the four-day extravaganza that wrapped up Sunday.
Though Japanese firms once dominated the global market with the likes of “Super Mario” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” they appear to be looking increasingly inward.
“The main trends of the video game market in Japan are divided into two categories: major worldwide successes like ‘Pokemon,’ ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Biohazard,’ and games that are specifically designed for core Japanese gamers,” said the Asia Trend Map institute, pointing to the “overwhelming (local) dominance of games made in Japan.”
A blockbuster offering based on the popular manga “Shonen Jump” reflects a common theme; Japanese video games are often centred around a well-known character in multiple media platforms, from manga and movies to music and TV series.
Namco Bandai’s “AKB 1/149 Renai Sosenkyo,” a popular dating simulation game built around the AKB48 brand, is the kind of title known to most at home but with little name familiarity abroad.
“The title isn’t suited to foreign markets,” said company spokesman Toshiaki Honda.
Even Sony Corp. is releasing its PlayStation 4 abroad before it hits store shelves at home — a first — with executives saying game titles expected to be popular in Japan won’t be ready in time.
Eiji Araki, senior official of mobile social game maker Gree Inc., said, “We’ve learned that characters and visuals favored in the United States are different from those in Japan.”
For some, the unique character of the domestic gaming market encapsulates the so-called Galapagos Syndrome, in which firms concentrate almost solely on Japanese consumers.
Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Samsung Electronic Co.’s Galaxy smartphones were a little slow to catch on here as many mobile carriers focused on homegrown flip-phone offerings.
While the iPhone is now selling well domestically, a ride on a Tokyo subway underscores another unique aspect of the nation’s gaming market — a love of handheld devices. Commuters on the city’s vast transportation network are frequently seen thumbing away on portable gaming devices to pass the time.
For one official at Tokyo-based Computer Entertainment Rating Organization, the love of fantasy and role-playing games in Japan’s low crime society stands in stark contrast to the brutal depictions of urban violence in “Grand Theft Auto.”
“Japanese consumers prefer family-use games to those with violent, anti-social or extreme expressions of sexuality,” the official said.
A report by Internet group GMO Cloud characterizes the difference as “self-escapism versus self-expression.”
Whether or not that’s true, “Grand Theft Auto” is undoubtedly violent, especially when compared with Nintendo Co.’s award-winning “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” in which players take on the role of a mayor running a rural community.
By contrast, past releases in the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise have included simulated sex with prostitutes and drunken driving, along with profanity-packed dialogue.
Carjacking, gambling and killing are the staples of a game in which players take on the role of a psychopathic killer in a fictional Los Angeles.
When “Grand Theft Auto IV” was released five years ago, it blew away video game and Hollywood records by making an unprecedented $500 million in the week after its release, and it shows few signs of slowing with the game’s fifth incarnation released a few days ago.
Hisakazu Hirabayashi of Tokyo-based consultancy firm InteractKK said he expects the game’s newest version to have relative success among Japanese consumers — at least “for a Western game.”